Cancer got me this job.

Company Culture #1

If I gotta work, and the sad fact is I gotta work, it’s office work. Can't beat it. You sit in a comfortable chair, the work itself is relatively easy, and you never get sweaty. The only real requirement is knowing numbers and the alphabet. The invoice says 72X, so you type the numbers ‘7’ and ‘2’ and the letter ‘X’. If you can do that, you’re on your way to success as an office worker.

I can do that — data entry, filing, and answering phones if nobody else answers by the seventh or eighth ring. That’s my skill set, and the only work I really know.

♦ ♦ ♦

Once upon a time, circa 2013, I needed a job. Since I am overweight, permanently disheveled, have ugly teeth, and never know what to say in job interviews, I signed up with a temp agency. That’s how I’ve gotten just about every office job I’ve had.

At a temp agency, there’s no real ‘interview’. They test your proficiency at various office tasks, and they’ll take anyone who can pass the test. Which is me!

What happens is, the agency sends me on various assignments, and soon enough, someone at one of those places notices that despite being quiet and funny-looking, I do good work. And they offer me a job.

This agency sent me to work answering the phone at an elementary school. Little Willy is staying home sick today, got it. 

When I didn't botch that too badly, they sent me to do data entry at a museum. That gig lasted a month, and then the data had all been entered, so my work there was done.

Next, the agency told me to report to some life insurance company I’d never heard of, and when I showed up, a receptionist said to take an elevator to the basement. I was going down in the world! 

The elevator doors opened in the underground parking garage, but a sector had been sealed off behind a door, and I buzzed a button for admittance. Through a glass window, I saw an older lady approach from around a corner to let me in. She smiled and said, “I like the look.”

I examined myself, and yeah, I was wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt, but they were clean and unstained. Better clothes are wasted on me anyway. I shrugged and said, “Thank you kindly. I’m Doug, and I’m your new temp.”

She said she was Olivia, said she was pleased to meet me, and oddly, she actually did seem pleased to meet me. She pointed to an empty desk where there wasn't even a computer, accompanied me there, and told me the basics.

“This company sells an unusual kind of life insurance, designed to pay for your funeral or cremation expenses when you die.” That’s weird, I thought and said, and she laughed. “Yes, it’s weird," she said, "but if you’re here long enough, you’ll get used to it.”

I didn't think I'd be there long enough, but I took a liking to Olivia. Most people did. She acted like she was everyone’s mother, and some of the staff actually called her 'Mom'. She wasn’t an obtrusive, judgmental mother like my own, but more a warm, caring mother from some sitcom. Have you ever seen That 70s Show? She was Debra Jo Rupp as Kitty Forman. Smart, funny, and odd, but in a good way.

She showed me the work I was supposed to do, which was not quite as boring as reading about it, but still very, very boring. We opened the mail — and this was a mid-sized insurance company, receiving thousands of envelopes daily, full of checks and paperwork and claims to be paid, and also so many miscellaneous forms and letters that Olivia handed me a flow-chart filled with arrows and boxes.

My work was to slice open envelopes one at a time, see what was inside, and sort it all into piles. There were always several staffers slicing envelopes at the same time, and the sound of it was hypnotic: Every slice made a whisper of fwwwp, and the rustling of papers was perpetual. Several times every hour, someone came ‘round with a pushcart, and took the piles of incoming mail I’d sorted.

These piles would then be scanned into the computer system, and routed to the right department, but only permanent employees did the scanning. They’d spend half their time slicing the mail, and the other half scanning it. Me, I just sliced, eight hours every day. Every slice went fwwwp, and my days were full of fwwwps.

Olivia had said to come to her with any questions, "And I mean it — ask me anything," she giggled. "I've been working here for 45 years, so I either know the answers or know who does." 

At first, every fourth or fifth envelope, I needed to ask Olivia about some new kind of document I hadn’t seen before. By Friday afternoon, though, only every tenth document baffled me, and Olivia said I was making great progress. “You got big piles, too,” she said, a compliment that made me chuckle.

“So are me and my big piles coming back next week?” I asked. Temps never know. An assignment ends whenever the company no longer needs you, or decides they don’t like you.

“Oh, yes, definitely.” I must have looked relieved, because Olivia added, “Didn’t anyone tell you? This is a long-term assignment.” 

That was great news. It was also weird news, because Olivia then explained to me that I was filling in for Cindy, a permanent worker who’d gotten breast cancer and was undergoing extensive radiation therapy. “You’ll be here for at least three months,” she said, “or possibly longer.”

Possibly longer … that sounded ominous for Cindy, but great for me.

Sure, I felt guilty about thinking that, but only for a moment. I’d never met Cindy the cancer lady. If she recovered I’d be out of work, but if she died I’d have job security, and maybe a permanent position.

Cindy didn’t die, though. A few months later, Daniel, the department manager, announced at a meeting that he’d talked to Cindy on the phone, and her cancer was in remission. She’d be coming back to work in a few weeks.

Everyone else was happy to hear this, and I wore a smile too, but mine was fake. I’d gone from not liking slicing the mail to still not liking it, but it was mindless work, and not thoroughly unpleasant. None of the staff had been particularly annoying, and two of them were pretty women. The office was warm in the winter. We were allowed to play music on our headphones or earbuds. I didn't like the job, but that was irrelevant. It was steady work.

And it was coming to an end. When the meeting was over, Daniel asked me to stay after, and I was pretty sure what was coming — an end date, and maybe a handshake goodbye.

When everyone else had left and it was just him and me, Daniel said, "Olivia tells me you have big piles."

"Guilty," I said dumbly. 

"She also says you ask lots of questions, and they're usually smart questions, and you don't make many mistakes."

Maybe I raised my eyebrows. This wasn't sounding like a handshake and adios.

“If you're interested," he said, "we'd like you to work here permanently."

“I'm interested,” I answered, “but Cindy is coming back.”

“There are two teams in the mailroom,” Daniel explained. “You’ve been on the incoming mail team, but there’s also an outgoing mail team. There's a job opening there.”

“As a temp?” 

“No," said bossman Daniel, "as a full-time permanent employee.”

“I’ll take that job,” I said. “Yes, sir.”

“You don’t even know what it is,” he said, but smiling.

“Well, tell me, please — but whatever the job is, I want it."

It took years for me to regret my eagerness.

Company Culture 

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